“Unfinished Business”

November 4, 2012—All Saints’ Sunday


I Corinthians13: 8-13

Hebrews 11:32-12:3


Remembering Jewish men and women of faith, the author of Hebrews writes: “Yet all of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

The faithful, from Abel to the nameless multitude are commended for their faith. Theirs was a faith that looked to the future. That they did not receive the promise was not due to a flaw in their faith but to the unfolding nature of the purposes of God.

Faith hopes. It looks beyond the present moment to God’s future.

Faith perseveres. It lives with promises deferred in the conviction that even death does not annul God’s promise.

Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is truly beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”[1]

“Faith, hope, and love” describes the way of God’s people—working together over time in one continuous story. The current chapter—and even the last chapter of that story—is not separated from all that has gone before.

November brings us All Saints Day: a time to remember and give thanks to God for the lives of those faithful people who have finished the race and who, as all of us will, have left behind some unfinished business—for nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Dying is not a neat and tidy finish. We do not tie up all the loose ends of life before it is over. In a sense, one’s affairs are never in order.

This morning we remember in particular two members of our congregation, Jackie Knapp and Rose Reed. We give thanks for their lives because in their time and in their way they joined with us and with others and with all the saints in seeking to make this world a little more like God’s just and loving and merciful realm. We give thanks that their lives were a part of our lives. And, no doubt, on this day you are also remembering and giving thanks for many others—that great cloud of witnesses—whose lives have touched and shaped your own life.

In our long tradition here we use jazz to accompany our remembrance and thanksgiving. The music reminds us that life is more improvisation than it is a set and orderly piece—we play off of one another and off of the events of our time, creating our unique melodies and harmonies that, even though they are short and ephemeral, in some way endure. The music reminds us that even in our grief and sorrow, we hear the good news that causes us to tap our feet a little. In what might seem like a liturgical act of defiance of the darkness of these days and the darkness of death, we put out our white paraments with their sparkling gold designs.

In recent years a new and unplanned tradition has developed—the celebration of the sacrament of baptism on All Saints Sunday. This morning we welcomed Georgia into the church through of baptism. In doing so, we gave thanks to God for “the hope and happiness that come into our lives by the presence of a child.” What better day than this to remember that being baptized into Christ Jesus is sharing in Christ’s death so that we might also share in Christ’s resurrection? What better day than this to remember that in baptism we are brought into a loving community far wider and older than our own family. We are not alone. We have one another. We have, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the “communion of the saints” to sustain us in weakness, to support us in despair, to bear our burdens as we run our race.

By faith we baptize in the hope that an infant—or a teenager or an adult—might in time grow, not just in their own faith, but in the faith of the church, that is, in a community of belief and action that moves toward love and justice in the world. So this morning, Georgia finds herself surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses—as everyone baptized in this place has been. We have taken on a unique responsibility for her—not just on our part but on behalf of the entire Christian church.

When Christians speak of the communion of the saints we look both ways—we remember those who have come before and as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms, the saints triumphant eagerly await our own efforts for the gospel that they might receive the promise. Reflecting on All Saints Day, Peter Gomes once wrote: “The story is not over even for them, for you and I are yet part of the process of redemption and it is will not be accomplished without us. God has not created us simply to be onlookers to [God’s] great work and that of [God’s] servants, but to be participants in that work.”[2]
Consider one example from our UCC heritage. The Congregationalists of our early nation struggled to secure the freedom of the slaves on the Amistad. But their work was not finished in their lifetime. They passed on the unfinished business of eliminating slavery to the abolitionists and to the generation that would fight the Civil War. They in turn passed to us the work of race relations—and the expansion of civil rights—that continues to occupy us today. Because the work is worth doing, it will not be completed quickly.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that they would not, they will not, apart from us and our work, be made perfect.

God’s work of redeeming the creation is not some “spectator sport” for us. It calls for the involvement of our whole being—body, mind, and soul.

The hope that saves us is the hope that our work for the good will be taken up by others who can see the flaws, who can see the good better than we can and who will, with the forgiveness of another age continue toward the goal, running the race with perseverance.

Do you begin to get a sense of what this day is all about? It is not the honoring of some individual, or group of individuals—although that may be a worthwhile activity. It is not about sanitizing the memory of someone so that they appear more “saintly” (in the worst sense of the word) than we know they were. It is not about reminding us of our mortality—although we mind need that reminder.

On All Saints Sunday we open our eyes and recognize that we are faithful people, not in isolation but in community. By the grace and mercy of the living God, that community extends not only in space but also through time. We are united in faith and struggle with those who came before us just as we are untied with those who come after us.

And that work, of course is unfinished.

It is our work in this time and this place. We will work for justice: that the hungry are fed and the homeless are sheltered and deep wounds of racism and sexism are healed for the sake of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. And if we are successful in sharing our faith, that is, in making clear that we worship and serve a living God, by the grace of that God our children and their children will continue running the race set before them and us, knowing that they, too, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—all of us looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

[1] Rienhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History.

[2] Page: 4
Gomes, Sermons, pg. 229